New group gives military families a shoulder to lean on
When Molly Gray's husband deployed for two years with the military, she felt very alone.
Now the Le Mars woman has started a movement to make sure no area military family member feels "in the dark" while a loved one is deployed.
Serving Armed Forces Everyday, or SAFE for short, is the non-profit organization Gray and five others created after talking together about the need for an organization that could reach out to all military families, supporting them in a variety of ways.
"It started with all of us talking, joking about how we answer so many questions and volunteer so much," Gray said. "It just exploded into this big dream."
About one month ago, they formed the organization and started reaching out to people, offering military families everything from a listening ear to deals on tax preparation.
Now SAFE's Facebook group on the Internet has more than 350 members -- both military family members and other community supporters.
"We got an overwhelming response," Gray said.
The mother of four, Gray says the story really started several years ago when her husband was called up for a two-year tour of duty in Iraq.
When he was deployed, it wasn't with a northwest Iowa group, it was with a brigade out of Waterloo.
He was the only one from the community who left with the brigade, so there weren't any fellow military wives or local support groups rallying around Gray and her family while he was gone.
"Now he's a veteran and I have enough time to dedicate to this for other military wives," Gray said.
Gray and her family moved to Le Mars last April.
On Facebook, Gray describes SAFE as a non-profit organization helping men and women of the United States Armed Forces and their families with hope, caring and sharing.
"It's a place to ask for help. We may not be able to help, but we will certainly try," Gray said. "We're a place to share ideas and a resource outlet."
T-shirts designed for SAFE state "We've got your back."
For starters, SAFE offers military families a contact point 24 hours a day, Gray said.
"They can call me day or night about anything and everything," she said.
Gray said she gets calls usually daily from military family members or others with ideas or requests.
Beyond that, SAFE offers everything from giving out the phone number for the Military One Source resource to caring for families of fallen soldiers, Gray said.
This past weekend, SAFE helped with donations such as gas cards for members of a military family from Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota after they were in an accident on I-29 in Sioux City, which killed their 14-year-old son.
Lots to do
SAFE is partnering with other organizations and businesses to host a few upcoming events.
One is a monthly "Do It Herself" event at the Home Depot in Sioux City.
The events focus on teaching wives to take care of projects while their husbands are deployed, Gray said.
The first "Do It Herself" event will be April 14.
SAFE is also teaming up with the Bandits, Sioux City's professional indoor football team and Bob Scott, Sioux City's mayor and the majority owner of the Bandits.
The SAFE logo is printed on each player's helmet, Gray said.
In addition, at each Bandits game, an area military family will be named "honorary coaches," Gray said.
On May 19, the Bandits will have "Armed Forces Day" with special opportunities for all military families in the Siouxland Area.
"People can check out the S.A.F.E. Facebook page for more details to come," Gray said.
That game starts at 7 p.m. with tailgating beforehand.
Another area Gray would like to see SAFE help out is to raise awareness in schools about deployment
"We'd like to help teachers get educated on what a child may be going through during a deployment," Gray said.
Down the road, she also hopes military members will "pay it forward" and visit the classrooms to read books to students and help out with similar activities.
"I'd really like to involve Le Mars," Gray said, adding that she hopes to work with local businesses, including making some kind of special day for military wives and moms.
"And I'd like to get involved in things here like the Le Mars Chalk Art Festival, get military families involved," she said.
Other plans include hosting a job fair for veterans and their wives and maybe even a 1-mile walk, featuring soldiers wearing high-heeled shoes, entitled "Step Up for Military Kids."
The ideas keep coming and coming, Gray said.
"I can't sleep half the time because I'm thinking of ideas of what we can do," she said with a laugh.
SAFE's six-member volunteer board of directors includes some military wives along with others with no close military ties, all Siouxland residents.
Gray is president, Denise Seibold Bottjen, a military wife, is vice president, Legion rider Jerry Hansen, of Le Mars, is secretary/treasurer, and David Lyman, Darcey Spates and Angie Meyer are members.
Meyer is also Gray's neighbor in Le Mars and leads a local Boy Scout troop, which is partnering to support SAFE.
Meyer met Gray through their children and heard about the idea for SAFE.
"I loved what they were about," Meyer said. "And I saw what her daughters have been through. It's also a great cause and a way to show my kids how to give back to the community."
Along with meeting once a month, Gray said SAFE directors and military families stay connected through Facebook to and mobile technology including iPad-style devices and cell phones.
"Most military families are on Facebook because it's an easy way for them to keep track of their soldier," Gray said, explaining that Facebook allows families to share messages, videos and photos and can be accessed around the world.
"We're attached to computers, iPads, phones pretty much all the time," Gray said.
Having an impact
Danae Erickson, the sister of Spc. Chad Groepper, a Kingsley soldier killed while serving in Iraq in February 2008, said she loves SAFE's mission.
The organization has pledged its help for the annual Kingsley golf tournament held in Groepper's memory.
"SAFE is going to help us as far as volunteers, promoting and getting in touch with more people," Erickson said.
The Granger woman met Gray through another military wife who had lost her husband, then Erickson started to get to know more of her through connections with SAFE.
When Erickson asked if SAFE could help gear up for the tournament, the directors quickly agreed.
"I think one of the things that we as family members fear the most is that our soldier might be forgotten," Erickson said. "The further we get away from it, the less everyone thinks about it, but it's still part of our lives. I think it's a great organization that wants to keep soldiers and families at the forefront."
Erickson said she'd give everything to have her brother back. Still, the relationships she's built with people since losing him have been incredible, she said.
The Spc. Chad Groepper Golf Tournament will be Aug. 25 at Kingsley's golf course, Erickson said.
Gray said she understands how important it is to honor the memory of a fallen soldier.
"We want them to always know that, even if their soldier is gone, he will never be forgotten," Gray said. "We are all indebted to the family forever. Even sending a card means a lot."
She said SAFE is also reaching out to older veterans
"Even if the war is over, it's not over for these guys. We want to make sure we can get resources out to them, too," Gray said.
How to help
People have already been stepping up to help the organization support military families.
Local attorney and prior service member Scott Bixenman volunteered his services to help the group file as a nonprofit organization.
"He took this all on and hasn't charged us a dime," Gray said.
Chris Radloff, of HippieBoy Design, also volunteered to design the organization's logo for free, Gray added.
Right now, the group is just seeking to get more people aware of its cause and to gather ideas and donations to help military members and their families, Gray said.
"When we do big events, we will be seeking volunteers," she said.
To learn more about SAFE, visit the organization's Facebook page, she said.
People and businesses can contact Gray by email at email@example.com or by phone at 712-294-4137
"I feel like people definitely stand behind us in the cause," Gray said.